In April, Cantor Julie Yugend-Green led 32 congregants and related friends on a 12 day, 3 country adventure through Eastern Europe.  We are back in the US now, but I’ve been joking that my mind remained in Europe.  It’s not exactly a joke – there are so many sites and experiences from the trip that are now part of my being, many that I’m still trying to understand and process.  Julie told us that this trip would be transformative, and it most certainly lived up to that promise. 

I could fill a book with details of what we did and what I learned on this trip.  In this column I will attempt to share with you a few scattered moments from the 2-3 days we spent in each country.

We walked in present day Warsaw, rebuilt after the demolition of the war (85% of Warsaw was destroyed).   It is sometimes hard to know which buildings survived and which were built to look like those that were destroyed.  We saw the small remaining section of the ghetto wall, walked through both small and large ghetto areas, saw the spot where the famous bridge stood between the small and large ghetto, witnessed the construction of juxtaposing new apartment buildings raised over ghetto ruins, and saw monuments of the resistance.  Everywhere I felt the ghosts of the Jews who had been living much like we do today until the events that changed the world forever.   

In Kraków, where more buildings survived the war, we visited the newest of the synagogues, built between 1860–1862, and the oldest one, built at the beginning of the 15th century.  We also visited the Kraków JCC, where a large green sign outside proclaims “Building a Jewish Life in Krakow”.  The director of the JCC proudly boasts that the building is open with no guards and no metal detectors, and is welcoming and inviting to all.  He tells us he hears stories every day of people who are just finding out that they are Jewish. He asserts that interest in Judaism is growing everywhere in Kraków and expounds on the public popularity of the Jewish Festivals.   He proclaims that Jewish life is being revived, very slowly to be sure, but growing nonetheless.  

We spent a day at Auschwitz and Birkenau.  While I knew plenty of facts about these places, the experience of being there was chilling in a way I can’t yet describe other than to say it is far bigger and more encompassing than I could ever have imagined.  We said Kaddish near the ruins of two of the crematoriums in Birkenau.  That moment will forever be a part of me, and I will never again recite Kaddish without remembering it and feeling the souls of all those who were cruelly murdered there.

In Budapest we celebrated Shabbat with the congregants of Bét Orim after passing guards and walking through metal detectors.  The next morning two of us went to the Dohány Street Synagogue for morning services, again passing through a metal detector with armed guards in attendance.  Later in the day Peter, our Hungarian Jewish guide explains that being Jewish in Hungary today is quite difficult and challenging, anti-semitism a constant concern.   We wandered through the Castle District of Buda and the river banks of Pest. Many from our group joined the incredible “March of the Living” walk along the Danube River together with tens of thousands of people, many of whom had travelled to Budapest solely for this event.  

Finally, we arrived in Prague, the city that looks like an incarnation of a storybook. As I’d been there before, for me it’s the first familiar city on the trip.  On our first night as I attempted to lead a group from our hotel to the town square, a sudden rainstorm forced us to duck into a doorway for shelter. As luck would have it, we found ourselves a wonderfully welcoming bar, which became “our” bar for the remainder of the trip.

We visited Theresienstadt, the town built to house 7,000 which at one time contained almost 60,000 people.  This town was used as the waiting room for transports and staged for a Red Cross visit to show how “well” the Jews were being treated during the war. We toured the museum and saw incredible and haunting artwork made by artists and children prisoners.  

This trip has changed me in ways I can’t  fully articulate, don’t yet fully understand.  It has given me a deeper understanding and simultaneously confused me even more.  It is a trip I could never have taken on my own.  I am profoundly grateful to both Cantor Yugend-Green for organizing it and to my fellow travelers for sharing in this journey with me.   



PS: You can view our photos online at http://travel.oakparktemple.com/eastern-europe.html.  

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